Moths and Butterflies – the Crucial Pollinators | Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Festival of Nature presents this blog by Stella Moon (Consultant Natural History Curator) & Rhian Rowson (Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Natural History Curator) on pollinators.

Historic data from pollinators

Research is being undertaken on the insects in the Natural History collection at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery to release historic data from important pollinators.

This research is made possible with support from the West of England Combined Authority Community Pollinator Fund. Find out more about the fund here.

[Stella Moon digitising the Lepidoptera collection @bristolmuseum]

In the basement of the Bristol Museum are hundreds of thousands of specimens, each holding valuable data about when and where they were collected, demonstrating a unique snapshot of the biodiversity of the area in our local time and place.

The data associated with the Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) specimens provide an insight into the populations and distributions of important species of pollinators in Bristol and the Southwest over the past two hundred years. It can provide us with information on the changing patterns in our local wildlife.

Each insect involved in pollination can retain pollen on their bodies. These insects in the collection don’t just capture that they were once here, but by analysing the pollen trapped on their hairy bodies, we can provide the past richness of the flowering plants in the area too.

We have approximately 450,000 insect specimens from historical collectors. By meticulously retrieving and recording the date and location of each one, Natural History staff at Bristol Museum, along with current data from Bristol Regional Environmental Records Centre (BRERC), can contribute to the wider picture of which species are thriving, what’s new, which are struggling, and which have been rendered extinct in the region completely.

Why is it important to know the status of moths in Bristol?

Butterflies, bees and flies are all well documented as being important pollinators.  However recent studies have found that moths visit plants not visited by other pollinators, and that their proboscis (tongue) and hairy bodies make them excellent instruments of pollen transport. They have been described as taking up the ‘night shift’ of pollination.

Pollinators play an important role in the biodiversity and health of wild flowering plants in the countryside, gardens and other green spaces, but they are also vital players in agriculture, with 75% of crop plants depending on pollination by insects and animals. Pollination results in fertilisation, on which crop yields, health and future generations depend.

Bristol pollinators

The Gothic moth (Naenia typica) had an increase in recordings between 2009 and 2013, but the population has since dropped drastically. The historic collection at Bristol Museum shows that this species was collected frequently in the Bristol area as early as 1890s and through the 1970s.

The Mouse moth (Amphipyra tragopoginis) was once very common in Bristol, with the earliest specimen in the collection dating to 1935. The population has declined substantially since 2008.

Both of these species are well represented in the historic natural history collection, suggesting they were in abundance in the Bristol area when collecting was taking place.

The historic data does not just highlight where moths are struggling. We are also able to identify when species increase in numbers or distribution. An example of this is the Clifden Nonpareil moth (Catocala fraxini), a moth which went extinct from the UK in the 1960s but has been increasing in numbers in recent years. The historic collection reflects this, as we have very few examples of this moth from early collectors, some of which were almost certainly captive bred rather than wild, and the recent BRERC data shows an encouraging pattern of increased sightings.

An interesting find in the historic Lepidoptera collection was the example of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly (Hamearis Lucina), collected in Patchway Bristol in 1950s. This is a significant specimen, as this species has been extinct in Bristol for the past couple of decades and until now it was never known reside at Patchway.

Having data such as the date and location of one of the last Duke of Burgundy butterflies gives researchers information which could provide further insight into the underlying factors leading to their extinction in the area. This kind of information can aid conservation efforts, regarding choosing locations for recolonisation, or to prevent further decline in other areas.

All of these species feed on the nectar of a wide variety of flowers, therefore play a part in maintaining the biodiversity and healthy ecosystems of Bristol. They maintain the diversity of wildflowers and help plants to produce fruits and seeds of which birds and other animals rely on.

These species have their own preferences for habitat and food plants, which encourages motivation for preserving and nurturing green spaces. Steps such as ‘No Mow May’ (PlantLife) and planting native flowers can provide vital food sources for both the adult and larval stages of moths, as well as other pollinators. We can do more by letting grass grow and weeds thrive naturally beyond May and allow native wildflowers to naturally colonise and spread.

Pollinators were a key theme of Festival of Nature 2023, with help from Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Bristol Regional Environmental Records Centre, and the West of England Combined Authority. With thanks to Bristol Museum & Art Gallery for this blog. Made possible with support from the West of England Combined Authority Community Pollinator Fund. Find out more about the fund here.